Incorporating intersectionality theory into population health research methodology: challenges and the potential to advance health equity

Soc Sci Med. 2014 Jun:110:10-7. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.03.022. Epub 2014 Mar 25.


Intersectionality theory, developed to address the non-additivity of effects of sex/gender and race/ethnicity but extendable to other domains, allows for the potential to study health and disease at different intersections of identity, social position, processes of oppression or privilege, and policies or institutional practices. Intersectionality has the potential to enrich population health research through improved validity and greater attention to both heterogeneity of effects and causal processes producing health inequalities. Moreover, intersectional population health research may serve to both test and generate new theories. Nevertheless, its implementation within health research to date has been primarily through qualitative research. In this paper, challenges to incorporation of intersectionality into population health research are identified or expanded upon. These include: 1) confusion of quantitative terms used metaphorically in theoretical work with similar-sounding statistical methods; 2) the question of whether all intersectional positions are of equal value, or even of sufficient value for study; 3) distinguishing between intersecting identities, social positions, processes, and policies or other structural factors; 4) reflecting embodiment in how processes of oppression and privilege are measured and analysed; 5) understanding and utilizing appropriate scale for interactions in regression models; 6) structuring interaction or risk modification to best convey effects, and; 7) avoiding assumptions of equidistance or single level in the design of analyses. Addressing these challenges throughout the processes of conceptualizing and planning research and in conducting analyses has the potential to improve researchers' ability to more specifically document inequalities at varying intersectional positions, and to study the potential individual- and group-level causes that may drive these observed inequalities. A greater and more thoughtful incorporation of intersectionality can promote the creation of evidence that is directly useful in population-level interventions such as policy changes, or that is specific enough to be applicable within the social contexts of affected communities.

Keywords: Epidemiology; Health disparities; Health inequalities; Intersectionality; Population health; Quantitative method; Research methodology; Social inequity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Ethnicity / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Health Status Disparities*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Public Health*
  • Racial Groups / statistics & numerical data
  • Research Design*
  • Sex Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors